Care urged over choice of advisers

Ministers have been urged to be more careful about who they appoint as special advisers to ensure smoother working relations with civil servants and avoid resignation situations worthy of The Thick Of It.

The hit BBC sitcom satirising the inner workings of Whitehall and the so-called spads contains "more than a grain of truth", the head of the cross-party Public Administration Select Committee warned.

Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative MP, said that special advisers - taxpayer funded but personally appointed by individual ministers - should be neither "shady characters practising the political dark arts" nor "political bag carriers" for politicians.

In a report entitled Special Advisers In The Thick Of It, the committee called for greater transparency about their appointments, their qualifications for the job and the specific remit they have been asked to fulfil.

It called for ministers to take full responsibility, rather than just accountability, for the activities of their spads, pointing out that no minister in living memory has resigned over an advisers' behaviour, despite some "astonishing" instances.

The committee highlighted the resignation in April of Adam Smith as special adviser to then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. It came after the disclosure of extensive contacts between Mr Smith and a News Corporation lobbyist during the company's attempt to take full control of BSkyB, on which Mr Hunt was meant to be taking a quasi-judicial decision.

Despite the controversy, Mr Hunt has since been promoted to Health Secretary.

The committee urged the Government to explicitly state in its guidance that special advisers must not be involved in quasi-judicial matters in future. Spads are temporary civil servants who, unlike keenly impartial career civil servants, are usually loyal to one particular minister and provide party political assistance.

The committee called for ministers to ensure that their special advisers are people of "standing and experience" - as recommended by the Fulton Committee during Harold Wilson's first premiership - and who can make a meaningful contribution to the Government's work, justifying their expense to the public purse. It also urged that they be given better training and support for the roles that they are being asked to undertake.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "We welcome this report from the committee and will study its recommendations carefully before replying. In June the Government laid out the first steps in its programme of reform for the entire civil service. This Government publishes more information than ever before on special advisers, and is now examining formalising the induction and training process for them".